The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“So I find this law at work. When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25a NIV).
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV).
The Sin Addiction
Until we come to terms with war as the context of our days, we will not understand life. We will misinterpret ninety percent of what is happening around us and to us. It will be very hard to believe that God’s intentions toward us are life abundant; it will be even harder not to feel that somehow we are just blowing it. Worse, we will begin to accept some really awful things about God. That four-year-old little girl being molested by her daddy—that is “God’s will “? That ugly divorce that tore your family apart—God wanted that to happen, too? And that plane crash that took the lives of so many—that was ordained by God?
Most people get stuck at some point because God appears to have abandoned them. He is not coming through. Speaking about her life with a mixture of disappointment and cynicism, a young woman recently said to me, “God is rather silent right now.” Yes, it’s been awful. I don’t discount that for a moment. She is unloved; she is unemployed; she is under a lot. But her attitude strikes me as deeply naive, on the level of someone caught in a cross fire who asks, rather shocked and with a sense of betrayal, “God, why won’t you make them stop firing at me?” I’m sorry, but that’s not where we are right now. It’s not where we are in the Story. That day is coming, later, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb and we’ll beat swords into plowshares. For now, it’s bloody battle.
It sure explains a whole heckuva lot.
You won’t understand your life, you won’t see clearly what has happened to you or how to live forward from here, unless you see it as battle. A war against your heart.
These are the words of John Eldredge, founder of Ransomed Heart Ministries, and he is dead-on. He is one of my favorite writers and authors. I republish his blog posts almost on a daily basis. We can learn a lot from his perspective on the Christian life. This blog post was called, You Must Fight For Your Life and helps us to see life as a battlefield for our hearts and souls. Good stuff.
In his book, Awaken the Dead, John Eldredge talks about three truths that we, as Christians, must accept. First, that there is a spiritual dimension to life. Second, that we are a world at war and third, that we have a crucial role to play. All three elements are found in the blog post above as well. And it’s true, isn’t it. Scary maybe, but also true. And we have to come to terms with it. Of the three enemies of our soul, the Devil is probably the scariest but, funny enough, perhaps not the deadliest. We also have our flesh and the world to fight against. And, of the three, it is probably our flesh that is the most dangerous to the abundant life that we all desire.
We have been talking about the Sanctification Gap, that chasm between the holiness and perfect love of God as seen in His justice and mercy on the one hand, and the depths of our sin, our selfishness, our inability to love ourselves, much less God or anyone else on the other. That Sanctification Gap continues even after we have been justified by grace through the blood of Jesus Christ. In fact, precisely because it is a substitution, that it isn’t our righteousness, the gap exists because we are not made immediately perfect in love. Our Sanctification is progressive. But that gap between our Justification and our Sanctification also creates a credibility gap, both in our own eyes as well as in the eyes of other people. And so it should. It is a necessary part of our situation as Christians.
Why? Why is it a necessary part of our situation as Christians? I don’t get it. It makes me feel terrible. The more I know about God and his holy, perfect love for me, the more I recognize the sin that is in me. And it isn’t just specific sins, it’s like I’m polluted with ego and selfishness and self-interest. My commitment to my own authority is incredibly strong. I find idols and other lovers, other priorities, other interests than my relationship with God distracting me and pushing me off the path on the road to Jerusalem. It’s miserable. I’m almost convinced that ignorace was bliss, but now I am no longer ignorant and I see myself as I truly am and it sickens me. Good. It’s supposed to.
Paul didn’t like it much either. What a wretched man I am! he declared. Who can save me from this body of sin? But he also declared something else. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul’s struggle did not drive him to spiritual despair or to spiritual pride (if you ignore sin and the holiness of God) but rather it drove him back to the cross, over and over again. There is only one solution and that is the cross of Christ. In the next chapter of Romans, Paul goes on to talk about the supernatural, resurrection power of Christ that sets us free from law of sin and death. We can’t forget that truth. It is also part of the cross. Jesus didn’t just die, he also was risen from the dead by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. That is worth talking about. In a lot greater detail. Which we will. But for now, let’s just stay with this concept of “the struggle” a bit longer.
Some people think that the solution to our dilemma is that, as Christians, Jesus frees us from the struggle. We are free in resurrection power to live righteous lives and, from now on, sin has no more hold on us and therefore a good Christian doesn’t sin any longer. Well, some of that is true and some of that is just plain false. Let’s look at this in some more detail. Paul seems to make it quite clear throughout his writings that the struggle with sin will permeate our lives until we are “delivered” into eternity. There isn’t much doubt about that. But he also makes it quite clear that we have resurrection power through our “umbilical cord” connection to Christ that we must access through faith which will help us in our struggle against sin. Both things are true.
What is not true is the conclusion that says since we don’t have to sin any longer, then anyone who continues to sin or struggle with sin is automatically an immature Christian or even worse, not a Christian at all. Not true.
Let me make this clear. The key to the dilemma is the presence of the Holy Spirit within. No doubt. He is the one who regenerates us. But the key is not our ability to harness the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit which is available to us. That puts the key in our own hands and we will always fail. The key is in the hands of God, in the very presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The question we must ask is twofold. On the one hand, is there evidence of the Holy Spirit and regeneration in my life? And secondly, how do I access that Holy Spirit resurrection power? The answer to both questions is the same but different.
The answer is faith. Faith is both a gift and a skill that we must master. We need to look for evidence of faith and we need to learn how to harness the power of that faith that we find within. The Bible is clear that faith is a gift and that believing in Christ and recognizing our sin are the works of the Holy Spirit. When you have the Holy Spirit within, you are convicted of the guilt of your sin. That is evidence that non-believers just don’t have. The very fact that you are worried about it, that you question it, that you are looking for evidence can only be so because the Holy Spirit is stirring you up to ask the question. Looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit is evidence of the Holy Spirit.
But it goes even further. When you have the Holy Spirit within you, you also have hope. Hope for the future, hope for salvation but most of all “the hope of righteousness.” We look forward to the time when the struggle is over and we are at peace with ourselves and the gap is closed with actual righteousness which we will receive together with white robes at the Feast of the Lamb on that last day. We have the righteousness of Christ but we also hope for the time when we are presented without spot or blemish before the throne of God. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. He is our hope and to him we give our gratitude and love (what little we have).
In motivational terms, we call that intrinsic motivation. There is something within us that is different, that wants something more, that struggles, that fails and then struggles again, something which cannot just “curse God and die,” something which continues on in the worst of all circumstances, that “wrestles with God,” that won’t let go until we are blessed. Not because we are such great “strugglers” but simply because he stirs us up to do battle once again after every defeat, every failure, ever feeble effort at the mortification of our flesh. For some strange, divine reason we have intrinsic motivation to struggle on in our walk with God.
Yes, there is some extrinsic motivation mixed in there as well. We want to live forever. We want God’s blessings. We want the benefits of the relationship. Perhaps we want to look good in front of the others at church. Perhaps we want people to think we are good people. Perhaps we are scared of hell. Some of the extrinsic motivations are rooted in the Spirit and some are rooted in the Flesh. Our job is to root out the flesh.
For some reason there is a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, some desire to close the gap, some effort at pleasing God. Why? Why bother? Because you have the Holy Spirit within. That is also evidence. You want a relationship with God. Why? What’s the point?
You are willing to humble yourself in confession, put your reputation at risk, perhaps be taken advantage of, be persecuted by people (even in Church) when they get ahold of that confessional information.
You are willing to make every effort to repent, to make things right, to spend money and time in restitution and reconciliation.
You are willing to forgive, to accept the cross as sufficient payment for the sins against you, even if they do not confess or repent.
You are willing to extend spiritual trust and take the risk of being hurt again. Why do you bother with all of this? Just forget it. Let it go.
You are willing to root out everything and anything that is getting in the way of your spiritual unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
You hunger for the holiness and power of the abundant life and the anointing that it brings.
You want to find your meaning in the significance of joint work with the Holy Spirit in joint ministry, you find your purpose in the great rescue operation that Jesus has launched in this world, you find your identity in Christ and in him alone.
Amazing. What in the world is wrong with you? Do you think for a moment that other people think this way, or even want to. You are stark raving mad. You have the Holy Spirit within.
The evidence of the Holy Spirit is not a sinless life, it is a spirit-filled life. The evidence of the Holy Spirit is not about certain legalistic actions or words or religious efforts that you make every Sunday and Wednesday night, it is relational.
The question is whether or not you have a relationship with him and what is the evidence of that relationship. Just because you go to church and you call yourself a Christian doesn’t mean diddlysquat if you don’t have the evidence of the relationship with the Holy Spirit. In the same way that many people get married for many different reasons, the ones who are truly in love have evidence. And most of the time they aren’t even looking for the evidence. They just know. That is what faith is. Knowing the other and trusting that relationship.
We will talk tomorrow about how to access that resurrection power through faith and how the Holy Spirit, as our Helper, will encourage us and teach us the ways of faith, but for now, the focus is on the relationship itself.
The thing to remember is that God is in the business of creating a certain type of person and the way that he does it is to bring to the surface the sins and habits and problems of our life so that we are faced with our own demons and are taught how to overcome them.
When we sin, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our walk in the Spirit and our committment to Christ. Yes, of course. But then we go back to the cross and acknowledge that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. You must accept and affirm that you are in union with Christ now and that this sin is not appropriate for a child of God. You do not belong to yourself, you cannot decide for yourself what sins you will or will not indulge in.
If you are justified, there will be a corresponding desire (however small) to respect such a great salvation, to give honor to God, to live up to the life that he calls us into. Paul says it over and over again. Live out the relationship you have within.
If you know and believe that you have the resurrection power within you to overcome this particular sin, then what is going on? The truth is that it isn’t about being too weak (since we have resurrection level power within us to deal with sin), it isn’t about not having a way out of the temptation (God promises that there is always a way out), the truth is simply that we wanted to sin. We wanted to commit this particular sin. Why?
Now we are getting down to brass tacks. We can ask these questions precisely because there is no condemnation. What idols, what bad habits, what stress-relief strategies are we committed to instead of God? The process is painful but it is God’s way of uncovering sin so that we can deal with it through confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to go further, probe deeper, uncover the filth and deal with it and that can only happen in the context and culture of grace.
Self-understanding here is key. It is one of the two pillars of our relationship with God. On the one hand, we need to understand the Holiness of God. His holiness is rooted in His perfect love. Who can argue with that? Wait. We do. All the time. Perfect love is a pain in the neck. We tell our Mother’s all the time NOT to love us so much. Put on clean underwear. Wear a hat. Change your socks. Love you, dear. Oh, bother. Mom, don’t love me so much for Pete’s sake.
But God is much worse. The point is that God (and Mom) is not the problem. We want the freedom to make our own mistakes, to live with dirty socks and underwear, to do what we want when we want (preferrably without too many consequences). Problem is that life and relationships are not really about dirty socks and underwear. Domestic violence, child abuse, absentee father, single mother’s, unpaid bills, alcholism, drug abuse, unwanted pregnancies, abortion (and the list goes on). That’s the stuff of real life.
Well, that’s not me, you say. Fine. But the bar is pretty low in that description, isn’t it? Try looking at your life from God’s point of view for a minute. His standard is perfect love. You may say that you are fine when comparing yourself to others but that’s like saying that being an alcholic is fine because you come from a family of alcholics. The bar is pretty low.
The holiness of God is his perfect love. And yes, he expects us all to love one another the same way. We expect it too…..from others, but not so much from ourselves. A double standard that is so normal, we don’t even realize we have it anymore.
And it is when we look at the holiness of God’s perfect love that we realize how sinful we really are, in various ways, to varying degrees but sinful we are. We have missed the mark. Our love isn’t good enough to solve our problems every day. In fact, we generally make a mess of things.
But it isn’t until we try to do something about it that we realize how strong that addiction to our own sin is. We want what we want whether or not it is good for us (or anyone else) or not. Our desires are powerful things but they are often broken and we call that addiction. The addiction to sin. It may show up as a secondary addiction called alcholism or drug abuse or pornography or violence but it is all sin addiction at it’s core.
And it is not something that we can overcome on our own. We all have it and we all need help. That awareness is the second pillar of our relationship with God. His holiness and our sin. The only bridge between the two is the cross of Christ. Therefore there is now no condemnation. There is progress not perfection and we need each other to make it happen.
We are too quick to judge one another when we sin (even if it’s true), perhaps because it scares us too. We need to learn how to help and encourage one another to take our failures in righteousness to heart and learn from them and then give the Holy Spirit permission to tear the idols down and root them out of our lives. We get help if necessary. We get educated if necessary. We fight for the abundant life. There is a battle going on and I’ll be damned if I let the Devil win the day. I am a child of God and I have power within me to transform my life and the lives of the people around me, the people that I love. The Devil will not win the day. The world (the flesh of others) will not win the day. The flesh (my flesh) will not win the day.
I am like a Hollywood heroe that cannot be defeated. My story is already assured. Yes, it can hurt. Yes, I will still bleed. I can get wounded, persecuted, thrown out of church, misunderstood, even die. But I will live forever. I cannot be defeated and my life is in God’s hands. I can afford to take some risks, make some moves, take a leap of faith. I can afford to follow God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength because he will take care of me eternally. Yes, there is a struggle. But I cannot be defeated. I can only whimp out, quit, hide in the bushes, get distracted, lose interest, not care anymore. I can give up on the relationship, at least for a while, but if I truly have the Holy Spirit, he is just going to stir me up and get me back in the fight so I might as well learn the tricks of the trade, take the training to be a desert warrior, fight the good fight and in the process, perhaps be used by God to save and transform another life. Perhaps one of my own children. Or a friend. Or a complete stranger. In any event, the price is worth it. Isn’t it?
It is the quality of our fight that matters, not how many victories we have. It is the quality of our relationship that matters not that we do everything right. But the message for today is that the abundant life, the pleasure of God’s anointing, must be fought for. There is a battle going on and real people are depending on you to get your act together, get your armour on, and go to war. Life is spiritual warfare and lives are at stake and you and I have a crucial role to play.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God…..
Lord, I didn’t really realize that I have a crucial role to play in your plan of redemption. You decided that you needed real witnesses, people transformed by the cross to give witness to the truth of the gospel. It’s one thing to have the Word, and another to have the Spirit but, you also decided that you needed the testimony of your saints, real, transformed lives to give credeence to your offer of salvation. Thank you for choosing me. I’m a bit scared of the battle but I know that I cannot be defeated. Others (including the church) may misunderstand me and mistreat me but you know my ways, my feeble efforts, my desire to please you. Teach me to look for the evidence of the Holy Spirit in the relationship not in acts of righteousness. Thank you for that freedom in Christ. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.